Turtleshell Products

Beauty Exploited - Illegal Shell Trade

If beauty was considered a curse, the hawksbill sea turtle would be the poster child. Though hawksbills face a myriad of threats from human activities, as do all sea turtles, the demand for their shell remains a serious obstacle to their continued survival. In the past century global hawksbill populations have declined by a staggering 90% as a result of the demand for their shell. Though the importation of turtleshell items is illegal in the United States these items are the most commonly intercepted products by US Customs agents from tourists returning home from the Caribbean.

To The Brink For Luxury - How It’s Used

Since ancient times, hawksbills have been hunted for their beautiful shell which is made up of colorful overlapping scales in shades of gold and brown and orange, called scutes. The scutes are polished and used to make combs, jewelry, sunglasses, ornaments, and other luxury and decorative items. Commonly referred to as tortoiseshell, or “bekko" in Japan, the illegal trade of hawksbill shell has pushed it to the brink of extinction. In Japan, bekko combs are still worn as part of their traditional wedding dress.

Whole turtles are also dried and sold intact as a wallhangings and curios. In the last couple of decades, large shipments of hawksbills headed for the black market have been intercepted by enforcement agencies around the world. In 2014 Philippine authorities intercepted a Chinese fishing vessel carrying 500 live and dead turtles headed for the black market. Because organized illegal trade occurs across borders, cooperative enforcement between nations is critical in tackling the problem.

Long Sought After - History of The Trade 

In 1977 the trade of hawksbill shell was prohibited by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITES is an international agreement to which voluntary parties (countries) adhere to. At this time, hawksbills were listed on CITES Appendix 1 which includes species threatened with extinction. Appendix 1 allows for trade of hawksbills and their parts only as permitted in exceptional circumstances. Currently 183 parties are members of CITES. 

In 1980, when it joined CITES, Japan took an exception to the hawksbill trade agreement and the turtleshell trade continued. Known for their bekko artistry dating back to 1700, it’s estimated that Japan imported two million turtles between 1950 and 1992 to supply the industry. Due to continued international pressure, Japan agreed to stop importing hawksbill shell in 1993, however stockpiles of shell remained. Stockpiled shell makes enforcement difficult as it’s nearly impossible to determine if confiscated shell is new or old stock. Because of this, some nations have pushed for the destruction of stockpiles, as other countries sit on their stockpiles awaiting the resumption of legal trade.

Illegal Trade Continues - Current Situation

Hawksbills are listed as Critically Endangered and in decline by the IUCN Red List, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, a global organization that assess the conservation status of species worldwide. In the United States they are listed as Endangered. Estimates suggest that only 15,000-20,000 nesting females remain worldwide, a fraction of their former population. 

Today the black market continues and according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Japanese bekko industry remains intact. Recent surveys in Latin America have shown the broad availability of these products; in Cuba, roughly 70% of shops offered turtleshell and in Nicaragua, the products were found in more than 90% of souvenir shops. The US is the world’s second largest market for illegal wildlife products and tourists who purchase them abroad and bring them home often don’t realize they are contributing to the decline of a critically endangered species.

Too Rare To Wear aims to reduce demand for turtleshell products in Latin America and the Caribbean by collaborating with tour operators and tourism organizations to educate travelers.

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Photos: Fundacion Tortugas del Mar (banner), Latin American Sea Turtles, ICAPO, Brad Nahill / SEE Turtles, Alejandro Fallabrino, Paula von Weller